Big image, no fade, tight spot, high price

Screens: Flat-panel monitors lose early faults, except the cost.

January 17, 2000|By Hiawatha Bray | Hiawatha Bray,BOSTON GLOBE

If you're the sort of person who'd pay $25,000 for a car and another $40,000 for the windshield, the computer display industry is looking for you.

At a time when you can get a high-quality PC for $1,000, companies are offering flashy flat-panel monitors costing well over twice that much. I've been tinkering with one -- the SyncMaster TFT700, a sleek 17-inch flat-panel unit from Samsung Electronics of South Korea, one of the leading makers of liquid crystal screens for laptop and desktop computers.

The SyncMaster could give these devices a good name. I've seen my share of cheesy-looking 15-inch flat monitors that sell for $1,000 or so. Once the futuristic thrill fades, I notice the lackluster image quality, and the way the image looks gray and faded if you view the monitor from even a slight angle.

Compare that to CRTs -- the traditional cathode-ray tube monitors. CRTs are fat and heavy compared to flat-panel screens. But CRTs offer bright, sharp pictures that don't fade when you look at the screen from an angle. Besides, CRTs are much cheaper -- $350 or so for a 17-inch monitor.

Granted, flat-panels take up a lot less space, and use that space more efficiently. Some of the surface of a 17-inch CRT tube is hidden behind the monitor's frame, so the viewable area is smaller. But with a 17-inch flat-panel unit, you really get 17 inches. Besides, no matter what's on the screen, flat-panel displays have a Keanu Reeves-ish aura of sci-fi cool that's good for impressing the yokels.

Still, reactionary types like me think a monitor is only as good-looking as the image it displays. For us, the flat-panel people are serving up monitors that match up well against the finest CRTs. Too bad I can't afford one.

The Samsung unit costs $2,400; as good as it is, I'm not content with it. Even after careful tuning, the screen displays slightly jagged text. The individual picture elements, or pixels, are more evident than on a CRT, so the characters don't look as smooth. Also, moving images don't "refresh" as fast as on a CRT. I saw smearing and jaggedness as I soared over Iraqi deserts in a virtual F-15 fighter plane.

On the other hand, colors are rich and sharp. In a side-by-side comparison with a new Korea Data Systems 15-inch CRT monitor, I'd give the Samsung a slight edge in color reproduction. And the Samsung has solved the viewing-angle problem that plagues flat-panel units. You can make out images on the screen when standing to one side, several feet away.

One limit on the Samsung screen's quality is its compatibility with standard computer video cards. These emit a stream of analog data that a traditional CRT can handle. But flat-panel units are digital devices, and they deliver their best performance when linked to digital video cards. Samsung compromised by building a display that would work with millions of existing video cards, sacrificing performance.

Other makers of elite flat-panel monitors are more daring. With its $2,400 1600SW monitor, Silicon Graphics Inc. bundles a digital video card designed by Number Nine Visual Technology Corp., which recently filed for bankruptcy. Silicon Graphics says another company will continue making the cards. The 17-inch 1600SW is a stunner, with spectacular color.

I'd cheerfully throw my CRT in the trash in exchange for the new monitor from Apple Computer Inc. The 22-inch model is called the Cinema Display, and with good reason: You could set it up in your living room and watch "Lawrence of Arabia" on it. It's decisively the best flat-panel monitor I've seen, and at $4,000 it had better be. Make that $6,500. The Cinema Display can't be bought as a separate item, so you'll have to take a $2,500 Apple G4 computer as well.

Apple has the makings of a good business plan here. The complex manufacturing process for flat panels means that high-quality models will be expensive for years to come, even as computers keep getting cheaper. Here's the idea: Sell the display, and throw in a computer for free.

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